Domestic sports against the backdrop of the ongoing military operation of Russia in Ukraine faced the threat of not just severe sanctions, but complete isolation. The initiative for such a measure comes from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which recommended that all sports federations and organizers of competitions refuse to admit Russian athletes to them. The recommendations were immediately followed by the International Football Federation (FIFA) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), which deprived the Russian team of the chance to qualify for the World Cup, and Spartak – the playoffs of the Europa League. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) called the IOC statement contrary to the Olympic Charter. However, it can hardly be considered an absolute surprise, given the severity of the reaction of the world sports community to the Ukrainian events.
The International Olympic Committee has released a statement outlining the decisions taken at an emergency meeting of its executive committee. They seem to be a much more terrible blow to the domestic sports industry than all the numerous sanctions that have been applied to it in recent days against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing military special operation in Ukraine.
In this statement, the IOC acknowledges that at the meeting it was faced with a most difficult “dilemma” caused by the violation by the governments of Russia and Belarus “supporting” it of the so-called Olympic truce (it comes down to a ban on military operations during the Olympic and Paralympic Games). He explained what it was. On the one hand, the task of the Olympic Movement is, among other things, to “contribute to the cause of peace through sport”, “regardless of political differences”, to “unite” athletes “through various competitions”, including cases when their countries are “in a state of confrontation and even wars. At the same time, athletes cannot be “punished” “for the decisions of their governments.” On the other hand, the events in Ukraine, as the IOC explains, have created a situation in which many Ukrainian athletes are unable to compete “because of the attack on their country”, while Russian and Belarusian ones remain.
While stating that the dilemma could not really be “resolved”, the IOC nevertheless presented – as it clarified “with a heavy heart” – a list of steps that it considered necessary in the circumstances. The main one is the recommendation, justified by the “protection of the integrity” of sports competitions and concern for the “safety of their participants”, that “all international sports federations and organizers of competitions” “not invite” or “not allow participation” in them athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus.
The IOC proposes to make an exception only when an operational refusal is impossible “for reasons of an organizational or legal nature.”
But even in these cases, he “persistently demands” that federations and organizers not allow Russians and Belarusians to perform under national flags using the name of their native country: the status – both of athletes and teams – can only be neutral. In addition, the IOC confirmed that it continues to recommend against holding international competitions in Russia, and also announced that, given the “extreme seriousness” of the violation of the Olympic truce, it is withdrawing its highest award, the Olympic Order, from Russian President Vladimir Putin and two more functionaries – Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Government Dmitry Chernyshenko and Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak.
Talking about how long his recommendations will be valid, the IOC informed about the creation of a special working group. Her task will be to monitor the situation.
Based on the findings of the group, the IOC can “adapt” recommendations, the direct implementation of which will, in fact, lead to the total isolation of all Russian sports for an indefinite period. Whatever it is, the consequences for the industry could be almost catastrophic, given the density of the international sports calendar in 2022 and the abundance of top-tier tournaments in it. The Russian sports industry has never been close to such isolation, even at the peak of the “doping crisis” that erupted in the middle of the last decade, causing enormous damage to it, both image and practical.
Meanwhile, the appearance of the IOC document threatening Russia with such consequences can hardly be considered an absolute surprise. The point is the severity of the reaction of the world sports community and the various structures representing it to the military operation that began last week. She was too sharp.
The most characteristic example in this sense is the reaction to the seemingly tough Sunday decisions of the International Football Federation (FIFA). A month before the play-offs, for the remaining vacant tickets to the World Cup in Qatar, she obliged the Russian team that got into them to play home matches on neutral fields, and also forbade her to use her anthem and flag along with the name of the country. But these sanctions did not suit not only the competitors of the Russians in the mini-tournament at the end of March – the Poles, Czechs and Swedes, whose federations expressed “regret” and “outrage” at FIFA’s indecision. The English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, French and Swiss football federations also demanded to remove the Russian team from the World Cup without waiting for the play-offs. FIFPro, the international football union, expressed solidarity with them, describing the initial sanctions as “light.”
In other sports, the pattern was similar. The Hockey Federation of Finland, the hostess of the May World Championship, with which the Latvian Federation agreed, spoke in favor of excluding the Russian national team from among its participants. In addition, the Finns, like the Czechs and the Swedes, do not want to meet the Russians in the Eurotour, a traditional series for the leading continental teams: this season there are two more stages left in it. Three strong volleyball teams – the French, Polish and Slovenian teams that won the Olympic title last year in Tokyo – informed that they were not going to go to the world championship, which was supposed to be hosted in August-September by ten Russian cities. Basketball Euroleague suspended the performance in the main European Cup of the representatives of Russia – CSKA, UNICS and Zenit. Even the usually completely “apolitical” and accustomed to ignore any crisis structures that control professional boxing did not stand aside – the World Boxing Council (WBC), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO): in in a joint statement, they warned that they would not recognize fights held in Russia.
The response of the Russian sports authorities to the “isolation” recommendations of the IOC was quite predictable. The President of the Russian Olympic Committee, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, in his comment noted that the ROC “strongly disagrees” with them. “There is the Olympic Charter and there is the previously voiced position of the IOC leadership that athletes are the heart of the Olympic movement, and their rights are above all. So, today’s decision of colleagues from the International Olympic Committee, in our opinion, contradicts both the regulatory documents of the IOC and the charter in the first place, and the spirit of the Olympic movement, which is designed to unite, not divide, especially when it comes to athletes and equality of participants in the Olympic movement,” explained Mr. Pozdnyakov.
He added that “as a first step” to resolve the problems that have arisen, “considers it necessary to send requests to international federations to receive an official response about the status of Russian athletes and their rights to participate in international competitions due to the fact that it is international sports federations that have the authority on the admission of athletes to international competitions in the relevant sport. ROC, according to Stanislav Pozdnyakov, “intends to consistently defend the rights and interests of Russian athletes and provide all necessary assistance to our national federations to challenge the discriminatory decisions of the relevant international federations.”
No matter how bright the rhetoric of the Russian side and no matter how decisive its actions, it is clear that the federations will prefer to follow the course laid out for them by the International Olympic Committee, and Russia will continue to suffer loss after loss.
This thesis was confirmed just a couple of hours after the publication of the IOC recommendations, when FIFA, as well as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), announced the removal of Russian teams from participating in competitions under their auspices. This means that the Russian team will still not play in the play-offs and will definitely be left without the Qatari World Cup, which will be held in November-December, and Spartak is expelled from the Europa League: the Moscow club made it to the 1/8 finals of the second European Cup and at this stage in March he was supposed to meet with the German “Leipzig”. In addition, UEFA terminated the sponsorship contract with Gazprom, which was one of its key partners. Both structures accompanied their sanctions package with a joint statement. It speaks of the “full unity of the football community” on the issue of its application and on behalf of the presidents of the organizations – Gianni Infantino and Alexander Ceferin – expresses the hope that the situation in Ukraine will “improve significantly and quickly” and “football will again be a vector indicating direction for peace between people.
The nearest of Russia’s next notable sports losses in the field of sports is not difficult to predict. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has already announced an emergency meeting of its executive committee on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the Paralympic Games opening on March 4 in Beijing: it will take place on Wednesday.